Wednesday, 18 March 2020

COVID-19 and the flattening of the curve

It’s still relatively early COVID-19 days for us in the Caribbean, but I think it’s time we start considering the ways the global impact of the pandemic is likely to change our lives forever – for better or for worse.

The peaks and troughs of outbreaks, epidemics and pandemics are frequently described as statistical growth curves to be “flattened” through interventions that avoid an otherwise unavoidable explosion.

The experience with even less extreme events is that a lasting flattening of multiple social, economic and political curves can accompany such episodes.

It is true that the medically more vulnerable, together with the poor and financially disadvantaged, are called to bear an equal but intrinsically inequitable share of the burden, but it is also a fact that the burden of a pandemic crosses the divides as effectively as natural disasters and the inevitability of death.

It is thus difficult not to make constant reference to what I have been referring to as the “legacy” issues that relate to the world of work, lifestyles, public healthcare delivery, the use of technology, and the general power dynamics of domestic and global politics.

As we speak, the mighty are being brought to their knees and a disassembling of the structures of power and influence is already in evidence. Who would have thought that through all its wealth and political power, Europe (as was the case 1500 years ago with the Bubonic Justinian Plague) would grind to the screeching halt we are now witnessing?

Who would have guessed that the mighty USA would have found itself stuck on the crease, on the back foot, with a bouncer en route with pace to its unhelmeted head?

But all of this is not a new or original contemplation. Our planet has experienced life-changing pandemics in the past that have caused gigantic shifts comparable to the incidence of global warfare and accompanying dramatic changes in geo-political power and influence.

Europe’s 14th Century Bubonic disaster, which claimed up to two-thirds of the population of the continent is thought to have contributed to the eventual dissolution of the feudal state. There were also significant impacts, positive and negative, on farming practices and the process of urbanisation.

Could it be that COVID-19 has played a role in the carbon emissions discussions more than any global commitment of the past 20 years? Could it just be that the value of virtual workspaces has, by force, been finally established? Likewise, the unavailability of schools has not necessarily meant the absence of schooling.

It is also advisable, at this stage, to consider what happened when the HIV/AIDS pandemic peaked in the latter part of the 1900s and took the lives of tens of millions of people.

We have already had to address issues of social stereotyping, stigma and discrimination, harmful disinformation, and compliance with a reorienting of behaviours – “protection”, the role of clinical testing and other lasting features of our response to the virus.

It has also proven inadvisable to focus purely on fatality rates (as important as they are), especially now that current interventions at national levels, guided by the timely acquisition of knowledge are more likely than not to save countless lives and minimise suffering – providing people in the regular conduct of their lives take basic precautions.

There still are too many who do not accept that, at one level, it’s simply a matter of claiming adequate social space, washing your hands, and avoiding contact with eyes, nose and mouth - personal responsibility as the ultimate solution.

Beyond that, workers, employers, parents and citizens, are being called upon to make changes in the ways they have conceptualised their relationships with their natural and social environments.

Governments are now being forced to recalibrate revenue and expenditure estimates in the face of assured fiscal crises while addressing critical and otherwise under-served needs in the social services sector. Food import substitution remains a compelling option along with reduced reliance on imported consumer durables, even as aviation and shipping lanes close.

It might just be that we are all in a rendezvous with economic disaster, but maybe, just maybe, the flattening of the curve also brings with it a new dispensation in which hope can find space through which to shine more brightly than it has in recent times.

(Published in the T&T Guardian - March 18, 2020)

Saturday, 14 March 2020

Guyana – the agony of independent journalism

Today’s column is inspired by the agony of independent journalism in Guyana in the midst of the current post-election turmoil.

My interest in this extends beyond the fact that I have lived and worked there and have been a frequent visitor as a journalism trainer and journalist covering a wide variety of areas for a very long time. Up to last January I was there as part of a training team for journalistic coverage of the elections.

I have also served as editorial consultant for Insight – a public affairs magazine published in Guyana - and have worked alongside the people at the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM) on the development and application of media guidelines for coverage of elections there.

That experience inspired inclusion of the now-abandoned GECOM Media Monitoring Unit and system of media refereeing as part of a media best practice chapter in an Elections Handbook for Caribbean journalists edited by Lennox Grant (a former media referee in Guyana) and myself in 2009.

I am saying all of this because people are entitled to raise questions about my personal credentials as a Trini on this issue. But I think I know about what I am speaking when I say that the challenges to independent journalism in Guyana represent a grossly magnified version of what we face in T&T and in most of the English-speaking Caribbean.

For example, the challenges confronting my colleagues in Guyana today result in part from deliberate campaigns to undermine the work of professional journalists over recent years and to insert in their stead regimes of social media led misinformation and disinformation, popularly known as “fake news.”

It is a modus operandi with which established, independent media all over the world are now very familiar. Set political and sectional partisans upon professional journalists – women journalists are particularly targeted – reduce their influence, contaminate their messages, and (hopefully) commandeer the public discourse.

We have seen it here in T&T and in my work up and down the Caribbean region I have witnessed it. In some instances, even the exigencies of industry competition serve the purpose of reducing the credibility of the free press. The fact that poor media practice is so often on display also does not help.

The confusion over professional credentials in the media also adds to the messy scenario. The Guyana Press Association is made to confront this on a daily basis and, in a sense, because of the highly formal nature of the process there, people pretty much know who are the part-timers and posers with absolutely no interest in the professional requirements of transparency, balance and accountability.

I recall my own queasiness over expanding the membership base of the Media Association here some years ago. But that’s another story. The fact is that the accreditation process in Guyana provides a useful starting point for uprooting potential malpractice and identifying the pretenders.

It is of course true that not all of us have been faithful to all tenets of the profession both here and in Guyana. You can usually spot them from a mile. But the problem, by and large, is exogenous in nature and driven by elements inspired by a need to subvert the work of mainstream media.

This is no idle conspiracy theory. It is something that is being monitored closely by press freedom and human rights organisations all over the world. We essentially concede the combined impacts of declining economic fortunes and the rise of “free” media, but at the same time recognise the debilitating effects of concerted campaigns to undermine journalists and the media for which they work.

In T&T, we are also witnessing the resurrection and introduction of social media operations purporting to be legitimate news operations that cleverly combine valid and fictitious “news” reports. All in time for election 2020. Be vigilant.

Similar operations did quite a job in Guyana, and there are prices being paid for that as we speak. Our neighbour’s house is on fire, folks. This is not the distant flicker of an offshore oil platform.

(First published in the T&T Guardian on March 11, 2020)

Thursday, 5 March 2020

Privacy, surveillance and free speech in T&T

The public alarms rather belatedly activated by Cambridge Analytica whistle-blower Christopher Wylie’s revelations about the company’s purported work in T&T several years ago offer an opportunity for anyone with a genuine interest in human rights and freedom of expression to nuance the discussion into a more informed one than is currently on offer.

I am initiating this modest start, because I have so far not seen much by way of informed public commentary on the implications of threats to privacy when it comes to other rights, and the degree to which we in T&T are already partially submerged in the resulting quagmire.

The fact of the matter is that, in a fundamental sense, attempts at gratuitous derogations of the right to privacy have long been active pursuits of political administrations across the aisle in T&T, and this part of the world.
Now, this is not to render anything disclosed in Wylie’s Mindf*ck or last year’s US Senate Judiciary Committee hearings or the earlier revelations of a UK Guardian investigation of lesser concern or interest, but just to say that the predisposition of our political parties and the people who support them have never sturdily equated privacy with other inalienable human rights.

The international body on whose Council I currently sit, IFEX, accommodates Privacy International alongside organisations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation which looks at digital privacy, free speech, and innovation, and journalism organisations such as the Association of Caribbean MediaWorkers, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and others.

This combination of specialised interests converges at the point where there is recognition of the inter-connectedness of human rights.

It is not inconsistent that the people involved in these organisations advocate for greater transparency on the part of officialdom while at the same time insist that breaches of personal and collective privacy can have the impact of undermining the ability to operate freely as citizens and as communities of interest.

This is among the reasons why it is entirely conceivable that journalists and their representative organisations can fuss over the current wave of data protection and cyber-crime laws in this part of the world which enjoy bipartisan support and can reduce the capacity of journalists and whistle-blowers to play active roles in delivering truth to power.

Mindf*ck is earning bestseller status in T&T, for instance, not long after the Media Association has had to less spectacularly argue (against strong resistance and passive opposition) that data protection legislation as conceptualised here stands in the way of the conduct of untrammeled information flows.

We are also in the throes of the imminent imposition of surveillance activities to regulate the online conduct of citizens (about which there are legitimate concerns and are perhaps already actionable under common law and existing statute) but through which a chilling effect on free expression is more than likely to prevail.

The problem with many of these ad hoc, knee-jerk measures is that they, at their core, refuse to recognise the nature of free expression as not only the right to disseminate information, entertainment, views and news, but also an entitlement to seek and to receive such content.

It is, in this context, always irksome to hear people talk about freedom of the press as a matter only concerned with the activities of the media, without regard for the fact that such a freedom intrinsically includes the rights of the consumers of mass communication.

It is true that increasingly popular governance frameworks for the operators of online platforms can have the impact of restraining unbridled technological power, and there is a very sophisticated international discussion on this issue. But there is always a danger of over-emphasising the role of state power in the reining-in of such influence and even control.

For further illumination we may turn to the guidance of international conventions that prescribe a right to communicate privately without interference, except under the most limited circumstances.
How good it would be to have the most recent cohort of graduating attorneys pay attention to such matters. Senator Sophia Chote forgot about this in her wise counsel to them last weekend.

Anyone challenging or gloating over Wylie’s revelations must also embrace an introspective on how we truly feel about such matters. This is more than just PNM/UNC business.

(First published in the T&T Guardian in November 2019)

An antidote for fear and ignorance - the true CORVID-19 challenge

There is absolutely no denying that the COVID-19 outbreak is among the more serious global challenges of its kind we have experienced in recent memory. Its spread has been rapid. It has already reached close to 60 countries and there is a 2% - 3% fatality rate, though more than 80% of its patients have suffered only “mild” effects.

It is only a matter of time before we begin confirming cases right here in T&T, maybe even before this column goes to press.

The virus is already nearby and because closing our borders and shutting down the country are not options, we need to focus on controlling its spread and impact when it arrives. 

There is no medication to “heal” it and, so far, no vaccine to guard against it. What’s required are proper diagnoses, together with adequate isolation and treatment regimes, and acute public awareness of all facets of the disease.
The experts have suggested that controlling its spread also requires a very high level of personal responsibility.

Unfortunately, this does mesh neatly with our collective predisposition on such matters. We have proven, sadly, not to be readily inclined to favour personal and communal obligation over mandatory official intervention.

For example, the minister of health was once ridiculed for suggesting that people’s health are their individual responsibility - the routine obligations of public institutions notwithstanding.

There are, certainly, legitimate concerns regarding vulnerable groups such as dialysis and cancer patients at public institutions who have raised questions about what happens should they contract the virus. The ministry needs to have clear protocols available to these people in plain language. Healthcare professionals should also be adequately equipped.

It is also not one of those issues for which a reward of cheap political points should be contemplated. I have been watching the various puerile stirrings. This is a matter for medical science, not politics, my friends. This is not going to earn anybody any new votes.

There is also no government ministry walking beside you 24/7. There’s just you and the people in your environment – at home, school, in the workplace and public spaces.

So, wash your hands properly. Do not touch your face. Cover your coughs and sneezes with tissue you dispose of properly. Avoid close contact with people who are ill. Stay at home if you are unwell. Regularly clean doorknobs and other frequently touched areas. The drill is pretty straightforward.

When it comes to overall management of the current challenge, the main enemies remain ignorance, superstition, conspiracy theories, xenophobia and racism, and general panic – treatments for which are always difficult to administer.

I am thus committed to ignoring politicians, religious folks, witch doctors and anonymous WhatsApp dispatches on this subject. Within this “infodemic” lie serious perils to be avoided. National, regional and international institutions are all releasing very useful advice and information. Stop saying there is no information. It’s there. Get it and share it.

Though social media reach in T&T is in the order of 62%, onward transmission of official data and information via the much more widely used WhatsApp has been conspicuously accelerated on this question – though some (not all) of it is rumour, misinformation and, in some cases, sheer mischief.

It is best to rely mainly on information disseminated by the Ministry of Health, CARPHA, PAHO and WHO – all of whom have released guidelines on the spread of the disease and measures for self-protection. Caricom has also activated a regional protocol establishing minimum standards for dealing with the virus.
Outside of the key official institutions, be sceptical about other sources of information that reach your phone, tablet or laptop.

Even so, official information now frequently contends with numerous conspiracy theories and other nonsenses that have not helped ease our tendency to panic and in the process ignore sensible, authoritative advice.

We also live in an environment in which rumour finds pervasively fertile terrain. Conducting a test for the virus does not constitute a confirmation.

The point of all of this today is that while the state has its undoubted share of obligations, stemming the spread of pandemic in the end falls to personal responsibility as a fairly effective safeguard, together with finding antidotes for prevailing ignorance and accompanying fear.

(First published in the T&T Guardian on March 4, 2020)

The Threat of Media Capture in the Caribbean

(Presented at the World Press Freedom Day Virtual Dialogue hosted by UNESCO, Caribbean on May 4, 2020) Background Depending on w...